A San Antonio artist pays tribute to her hometown through vivid food portraits

“I think there’s just this incredibly close connection between what we eat and who we are,” says Eva Marengo Sanchez.

By Sara HutchinsonDecember 13, 2021 7:21 am,

Oil painter Eva Marengo Sanchez was born and raised in San Antonio, and she honors her city by painting the food its known for: paletas, cups of red and green salsa, conchas topped with sprinkles.

Painter Eva Marengo Sanchez. Courtesy photo

For Sanchez, food is inextricably linked with a person’s identity.

“I think there’s just this incredibly close connection between what we eat and who we are,” Sanchez told Texas Standard.

Her work is now on display as part of the McNay Art Museum’s “Art of SA Eats / Sabor” exhibit.

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to learn more about how Sanchez sees her work as an opportunity to elevate and celebrate everyday experiences.

This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Texas Standard: You’ve contributed a series of portraits of conchas to the McNay exhibit. Tell us about those paintings: are those renderings based on real pastries or sweet memories?

Eva Marengo Sanchez: Yes, they’re each from specific bakeries in San Antonio. I see them as one piece. There’s six individual paintings and they’re all yellow conchas. The piece is called “Six Yellow Conchas”; it’s a celebration of culture. In my work, I try and remove as much environment as possible to highlight the beauty of things that I think we take for granted in our daily lives. So, they’re a celebration of just the aesthetic beauty and importance of our culture in ways that I think we sometimes take for granted.

Sanchez’s “Fruteria la Mission y Taqueria.” Courtesy of the artist.

I’ve heard that you’ve painted everything from pickles to tortillas to gum. How do you select your subjects?

It’s a lot of time based on what’s on my kitchen table. They are things that are in my life, and a lot of times they are things that I’m mulling over for a really long time before I actually work up to painting it. But I see my job as to tell an emotional truth; not necessarily a factual truth. And so I try and find objects that tell that. It might be a painting of a pickle from the movie theater, but it is presented in a way that tells a bigger story about our lives and how we experience our lives.

I guess that’s partly why you think food is such a compelling subject, because we can all connect to it in a way, right? 

Yeah. I’m fascinated by how much it says about who we are and also how much it’s tied to our identity. I’m born and raised in San Antonio and I moved away, and I missed food when I was away from San Antonio. The connection between memories of family and friends and my life was tied to food in so many ways. And so I think there’s just this incredibly close connection between what we eat and who we are that I’m really fascinated by.

Courtesy of the artist

Sanchez's mural, "The Morning After: Plan A."

You’ve also been commissioned to complete several public murals in San Antonio, including one that’s entitled “The Morning After: Plan A.” Could I ask you to tell us a little bit about that piece?

It’s breakfast tacos and a lemonade and the salsa that comes in the bag when you get tacos to go. And again, it’s a celebration of what our – mine and so many other people in San Antonio’s lives – look like. I want to elevate what our daily experience is. It’s also for me about representation. I think public art is so incredibly important and a community’s lives being reflected in the art that surrounds them, I think, is really important. So that’s what that piece is trying to do, to celebrate the mundane, celebrate what our lives look like and that that’s worth looking at and celebrating. And it’s different from other cultures; it’s specific to us.

It must be a lot of fun to watch others react to your work. Do you ever act like a fly on the wall, sitting in the back of the gallery watching what’s happening? 

No, that makes me so uncomfortable! But I do get messages on Instagram that mean so much to me, when people reach out. I also sell prints of my work, and a lot of times people will buy prints that were from San Antonio and maybe have moved away, and they’re just the most touching stories of their memories of being with their grandparents on a Sunday morning. Just intimate memories and the emotional response that people have and will share with me, it means so much to me. So, I like it that way, but watching it in real life makes me uncomfortable and self-conscious.

But it must be exciting to get these sorts of reactions as you’re describing. It’s a very natural thing because your subjects are so much more accessible compared to what others might typically associate with painting, right? 

Yeah, I do take so much pride [in that]. I grew up going to the McNay, specifically, and I think it’s just absolutely fantastic that they make space on the walls of their museum for representing what our lives look like. I do find it so satisfying, the idea of somebody walking into the museum and seeing something so tied to what their lives and their cultural experience looks like. There’s so much beautiful art in every museum, that is created so beautifully, but maybe doesn’t have an emotional – that I don’t have an emotional response to – because I’ve never experienced what’s been depicted in the work. And so I love that somebody might walk into the museum and feel connected in that way, and pride in our culture.

After college, you spent eight months living in Mexico City studying Mesoamerican art. Did that influence your interest in food and painting? 

Yeah, absolutely. I absolutely loved living in Mexico City and the food there. And I think that part of my education in anthropology and understanding culture and just not taking it for granted – anything that we think is not specific to who we are. And so I went to school in the Midwest and thought of my home as Mexican food, and then I went to Mexico and was like, this is nothing [like home]. They’re completely different things; Tex-Mex is so specific and so different. So yeah, realizing that, living in Mexico and learning about Mesoamerican history, certainly.

I’m curious: after you paint your food, do you eat it?

Usually my models are, I’m keeping them half-alive in the freezer as I’m working, and by the time I’m done painting, they are not edible. But I try not to paint hungry.

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